Sign up for an overnight rafting trip down the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon. The day is spent floating on the river. At night, the 1,500-foot-high canyon walls cocoon around your campsite under a halo of stars. Three rafting companies are licensed to take groups down the river. For more information about activities on the river visit: www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/outfitters.htm.
The Maxwell Scenic Drive serves up one postcard-worthy panorama after another. Departing from the north side of Burro Mesa, this 30-mile trek winds through pioneer settlements and along the Sotol Vista, where you can enjoy a tremendous view of the Santa Elena Canyon and nearby Mexico. It then dips into the Castolon, a former Army post that was established during border disputes between Mexico and the U.S.
Lost Mine Trail: Local lore holds that Spanish conquistadors passing through the region discovered silver at the summit of the Chisos mountains, and enslaved local Indians to mine it. But the Indians revolted and sealed the mine, hiding it forever. Search for it yourself as you hike along this moderate five-mile stretch that is suitable for children. The panoramic view from the top is one of the grandest in the park.
South Rim Trail: This strenuous 13.5-mile hike along the southern rim of the Chisos Mountains is often done as a one- to two-night backpack trip. The effort is rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains and desert.
Big Bend's diverse flora includes desert scrub, sotol grassland, pinyon pine, juniper, oak woodland, claret cup, bigtooth maple, Douglas fir, Arizona cypress, oak, pines, bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, and yuccas. Wildlife you may spot: the Colima warbler, native only to Big Bend; deer; mountain lions; coyotes; bears; rattlesnakes; jackrabbits; javelina; owls; bats.
Rise at dawn for an outstanding view of the Santa Elena Canyon from the Sotol Vista, along the Maxwell Scenic Drive. Shoot the Sierra del Carmen at dusk from the Rio Grande Village approach.
Smart Traveler Strategies
The desert comes alive at night, when temperatures drop and many of the animals emerge to hunt. But be sure not to focus too much on the landscape: The stargazing in the dark Big Bend sky is extraordinary. One of the best places to see the stars is from the Hot Springs near Rio Grande Village.
Personalized ranger-led tours are available for $35/hour for a minimum of four hours, and are perfect if you're traveling with a family or have specific areas or interests in the park that you'd like to explore. Advance notice is recommended (+1 432 477 1108).
Excursions Outside the Park
Worthwhile visits include the McDonald Observatory (140 miles northwest of the park), the Chihuahuan Research Institute (124 miles north), and the nearby towns of Terlingua/Study Butte, Alpine, Marathon, and Marfa.